Boomerang employees – the green green grass of home


They used to say you should never go back where you’ve been before, but it seems an increasing number of us are. The concept of boomerangs, employees returning to previous employers after a period of time away, is not new but it certainly seems to constitute a far larger part of talent management strategy than previously.

This last week I’ve had the pleasure and honour of organising a couple of leadership seminars in Malaysia run by the Harvard Business School professor Boris Groysberg – author of the bestselling books ‘Talk Inc’ and ‘Chasing Stars’ and a star in his own right in the talent management arena. Boris brought the topic up with one of the groups, and then asked the question, Would you take someone back?

The mood around the room suggested not – and definitely not if the employee had left on any kind of bad terms whatsoever. Boris himself had several examples of the perils of taking someone back. For instance, if the returning employee is assigned to a higher position, other employees might feel the only option for career advancement is to leave – or threaten to leave, as evidenced by those who seem to have a career strategy born out of counter-offers. They could well even resent the fact that their own loyalty in staying has not been rewarded. Another abiding suspicion can be that the employee has left once, and so what’s to stop them doing it again?

And yet the research suggests that employees who return to previous organisations often display stronger commitment and stay longer than their first stint. Their time away has given them new skills and experience, and expanded their market knowledge and networks, all of which can directly benefit the performance of their original organisations.

Employees leave for a variety of reasons – better salaries (though these are not in the majority), the perception of lack of opportunity in the current outfit, the desire to set up on one’s own, the need for a new challenge, and more. Yet, as Boris points out in his book Chasing Stars, not all talent is portable. For many high performers, their success has come from the structure, the culture, and the networks they enjoyed in their original organisations. To their frequent surprise, many find themselves floundering in the new waters of another organisation. Awareness of this leads many back. And good hiring managers will know to keep in contact with these former employees to pick the right moment to tempt them back.

For returning boomerangs – already familiar with platforms and systems, cultures and networks – the integration process is not seamless, but it’s certainly far less expensive and time consuming than with new hires.  It’s also not unusual for them to become poster children for retention purposes. Directors can point to them and claim we must be doing something right if they want to come back to us….

Yet boomerang employees should not be blindly welcomed back with open arms. Good talent managers recommend thorough reference checks to clarify exactly what these boomerangs have been doing while away from their organisations and also to dig deep into the reasons why they left and are now returning. Once bitten, twice shy?

Boomerangs’ progress also needs to be monitored to ensure they are on track when back in their original organisations, for another saying has it that you cannot step into the same river twice. The organisation will have changed in their absence, new alliances and teams formed. Aside from any lingering suspicions, former colleagues will likely have changed roles and responsibilities.

Overall though, boomerang employees often prove themselves a force for good, with a host of enhanced qualities and knowledge to take their organisations and themselves further. So I was a little surprised by the mood against boomerangs in the seminar room. It prompted in me the question of the role of organisational and individual culture in this view.

In an individualistic, achievement-oriented society such as the US or the UK, we could well assume that boomerangs would not be such an issue in this age of free agents. And yet here in Southeast Asia, with a more group and ascriptive orientation – or in a family organisational culture wherever you are – maybe the initial act of leaving is viewed as too much of a betrayal. I am curious to see if there has been any research on this.

Whatever your take on this, it makes all that more sense not to burn bridges when you leave somewhere. You could well come back knocking on the door one day.

About Julian King

Julian King is an international HR consultant and certified executive coach with a keen interest in intercultural matters.